Indie Rock Legends Rob Miller and Jon Langford on 25 Years of Music (And Beer)November 13, 2019
“It was an absurd proposition,” admits Rob Miller on the indie record label he helped found 25 years ago. “The city and everyone we’ve surrounded ourselves with has allowed it to happen.” Bloodshot Records has celebrated roots music with a punk edge—be it country, soul, or rock and roll—since its 1994 debut. Its first release was a compilation of Chicago’s “insurgent country” scene at the time. To mark its silver anniversary, Bloodshot is highlighting the city again with a new compilation entitled Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots.
Among the artists featured on the 25th anniversary compilation is longtime Bloodshot collaborator Jon Langford. The Wales native is known for his country-punk band the Waco Brothers, and for the pioneering punk rock collective the Mekons. The Mekons also celebrated an anniversary this year, 40 years together, with their first full-length album in eight years.
I caught up with Rob and Jon at the Hideout in Chicago to talk about their latest projects and just how much the work—and beer—has changed in the last 25 years.
Congratulations on 25 years of Bloodshot Records. What did you guys drink in 1994?
Jon: Wow, 1994. There wasn’t much choice was there? I mean, when I first came over in the eighties, we were literally shocked and horrified at what you could get. We only drank Mexican beer. We didn’t like it, but it didn’t have the sickening aftertaste of American domestic beers. So, we would drink Corona or Pacifico, if we could get them, or Guinness in Boston or New York. The rest of the time we were just totally confused.
Rob: I lived in the Bay Area in the mid-eighties and Anchor Steam was there. I would just drink Old Style because it was good and it wasn’t Budweiser.
Jon: I’ll tell you what I’d buy then. I’d buy Leinenkugel. I don’t know if it was bought by Miller at that point, but I had a feeling it was probably better than other things.
Rob: It had a patina of small batchness to it. I remember when Honkers Ale hit. That was the first beer I remember having an awareness of locality to it here.
Jon: Also, we drank at Delilah’s which always had the weirdest things you could possibly want to drink and still does. They had a lot of like, Basque seal blubber lagers, all sorts of things. They always had a great selection of ciders as well. They would go for anything that was difficult to get, and anything I wanted was difficult to get when I first moved here.
Rob: In the early days of the label, if I wanted to drink beer, I would just drink whatever was on special. You drank to drink and you didn’t care, because there wasn’t anything to really care about. When I started going to England on tour or to visit friends, I was like, “Oh my god, this is good!” The ESBs, and Old Speckled Hen, and John Courage and all this stuff on tap was delicious.
My grandparents always had a barrel of beer in the kitchen. An early memory is my grandfather holding my head under the barrel where they had a little bowl on the floor to catch the drips.”
Do you have any other early memories of beer?
Jon: My grandparents always had a barrel of beer in the kitchen. An early memory is my grandfather holding my head under the barrel where they had a little bowl on the floor to catch the drips. I’d go under there and he’d say, “Hang on,” and he’d hold me so I could catch the drips. My grandmother would go, “Arthur! You can’t give a baby beer!” I got a taste for it.
Rob: Stroh’s was the big one in Detroit. When we were little shaved head punk rockers, our punk rock girlfriends would dress as normally as they could and we would drive over the Ambassador Bridge to Canada to get Labatt’s and Labatt’s 50 which was like, high octane. We’d put it in the trunk and drive back. It was cheap. We looked as innocent as we possibly could. I was 16, but I looked like I was nine.
What are you into drinking these days?
Jon: At the moment, I really like Metropolitan because they specialize in lagers and German-style beers. To me, that stuff is really drinkable. No one is going to make me a cask-pulled pint of Harvey’s from Sussex. I’m going to enjoy that if I go to the Harvey’s pub and I’ll have the most amazing experience drinking the pint from there. My dad always said, “Beer doesn’t travel.” We lived twelve miles from Cardiff and he wouldn’t drink Brains [brewed in Cardiff], which is a fantastic beer, because he said it doesn’t travel.
Rob: We were on some Wacos tour in the UK, and I think it was in Sheffield or Nottingham that the promoter was very excited because he saw that we had been over there for a while. He was very keen to please us and he showed up with a surprise. We went up to the dressing room and it was cases of Budweiser, because he thought we might be missing home. At that point, I was like, “That’s the last thing I’m missing about America is the beer!” It had the same logo and everything, but it was in a plastic bottle so you would do this [raises beer to drink] and the mechanics would be just a little bit off. You would keep missing your mouth.
Jon: Having said that, I was in my local pub in Newport probably 15 years ago and I said, “What’s your best-selling beer now?” And he goes, “Budweiser.” All the kids wanted to drink Budweiser there. Of course, it wasn’t American Budweiser, but it wasn’t Czech Budweiser either. There was a Budweiser being made in England which was like a strong lager.
How did the new compilation come together?
Jon: A lot easier than the first one, probably.
Rob: Actually, no. The first compilation was all Chicago bands, we just wanted to take a snapshot of what was happening in 1994 in the city. The scene that was going largely undocumented.
Jon: Undocumented and unbeknownst to parts of it. There were a lot of people doing similar things without knowing it. We had no idea what we were doing, or that anyone was doing anything vaguely similar. Me and Dean just loved old country music and hated new country music.
Rob: So, we put that together and then here we are 25 years later. We were thinking about what to do to commemorate that, and I thought we should revisit Chicago. Chicago is such a unique place, and it just shows that all these bands still working in the shadows out of the limelight and it’s such a fabric of the city. It came together really fast because there was so much talent out there that is just doing their work. They’re not trying to get signed. It’s not like New York, L.A., or Nashville. We’re not a company town. The whole idea was to repay the city, because there is nowhere else that as a label we could have done what we’ve done.
Jon, how is the new Mekons album doing?
Jon: We did two tours, one in Europe and one in America and they were the best tours we’ve ever done and they made the most money we’ve made from tours. It’s strange. I don’t understand what’s going on. Why would that happen at this stage? Musically, it’s very good. The band’s great and now we’re all old.
Why did the Mekons start making music and then why did you make this album now?
Jon: We started because we were art students, and we were interested in creativity and politics and all this stuff and there was nothing going on with the brushes and the canvas. What was going on was the punk rock. You had bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash coming up and basically saying, “This is a cultural activity better performed by people who don’t know what they’re doing, because everything that’s come before is just rubbish.” It wasn’t actually true, but at the time it was a very pervasive argument.
Rob: And a liberating one.
Jon: Anyone could do it. We used to say that at the end of gigs. We got really popular for a while and it was the most brutal, simplistic music with quite complicated politically nuanced lyrics. It was actually fun as well. We’d always end the gig by saying, “Go home and form a band. Anyone can do this.” I happen to know a lot of bands that saw the Mekons and actually went home and formed bands. People with quite long careers in the music business who never thought they’d be part of it because it was the domain of musicians in the 1970s—progressive rock was all about how well you could play. Rock and roll wasn’t about that. It was functional music. It was music that had to be made just for the excitement of it. Punk rock was a resurgence of that.
Why we’re doing it now? I don’t know. There were points in our career where if we stopped it would have seemed like we had surrendered and given in to the forces of evil and capitalism. Maybe it was better to push on and see what would happen. Fortunately, there always seemed to be some kind of audience out there for us. A small, stunted audience, but there’s always been some people who have wanted us to go on. We built the band to be something that kind of defied the rules of the music business and actually turned into a kind of weird little family and community of people. The idea of stopping doing that would seem like defeat, so we can’t. We have to go on until the morticians arrive.